SCOPE faces decision time on data collaborative

Allison Pinto addresses a group at a SCOPE meeting in mid-August. Photo courtesy Pola Sommers

SCOPE’s “Community Data Collaborative” approaches a decision point next month. The organization – Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence – must decide to move forward, switch partners on the initiative, wait or kill the project.

After a year of work with the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., the organization debuted the product to a handful of participants on Wednesday, Aug. 29. It is a website based on geography, and it is stuffed with an enormous amount of data.

Want to know about low-birth-weight babies in your neighborhood? Or the number of gifted students who live around you? Or perhaps the number of break-ins in the past year? SCOPE’s objective is to put that information at your fingertips. And more. A lot more.

During an earlier meeting, Project Director Allison Pinto said, “No community in the nation has done this before, with an online neighborhood focus.”

 Decision point

Pinto has worked with the Urban Institute and a number of local organizations over the past year to make the collaborative happen. The city’s and county’s staffers working in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) have contributed data, as have the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, the Health Department, the U.S. Census Bureau, the School Board and other organizations.

Participation is voluntary. The Health Department, for example, is governed by privacy laws regarding health information on individuals. But it can still provide information about health statistics. Ditto the School Board, which cannot identify students but can furnish data stripped of identifiers.

SCOPE on its own has been tracking community data throughout the county for the past decade, offering an annual community “report card.” But the Community Data Collaborative is an entirely different project.

What happens to it will be decided Sept. 17. “That’s where we’ll make some decisions,” said SCOPE’s former director, Tim Dutton. Not only is the database project at a turning point, so is the organization, as it looks for Dutton’s successor.

Pinto said the data collaborative has five options. For the past year, it has worked with the Urban Institute. Should SCOPE invest further with that organization?

At the other end of the spectrum, SCOPE could give up on the idea entirely — stop development and scrap the idea.

In between are three other alternatives. SCOPE could find another national partner to help further the effort, or it could turn to local partners for expertise and assets. Or last, it could not make any decision at all, stepping back to let the existing work “percolate,” as Pinto referred to that possibility.

The fledgling site

The website went live only a few days ago. Pinto’s formal demonstration suffered from a weak WiFi connection and a terrible LCD projector. (Brown-and-white imagery, anyone?) In fairness, it must be noted that the presentation had to be rescheduled to a new location this week because of Tropical Storm Isaac’s appearance.

Despite the slow response and monochromatic appearance, the data available was eye-opening. Pinto picked her neighborhood as the focus of her demonstration – Central Coconut, east of the Tamiami Trail and north of downtown.

If you go to the city’s website for a map of neighborhoods, you can click on the Central Coconut area, but nothing happens. When you click on the SCOPE site, a whole world opens up.

“This puts neighborhoods and residents at the center,” said Pinto. “It equips residents to make good decisions.” Plus, it gives neighborhoods – and their associations, if they are organized – a new communication tool.

The website can be configured to include a neighborhood calendar and a neighborhood blog — and even a neighborhood video center. SCOPE has been working for several months to produce short videos with the theme, “Life is Good,” by interviewing neighbors.

Such videos and others can be posted through the database. Blog comments will be tagged with addresses, to prevent anonymous hate mail. In other words: If your neighbor says something you don’t like, you can walk down and knock on his door.

The site also will display “assets.” Schools, churches, businesses, civic organizations, not-for-profits — all will have an icon. And for each one that has a website, clicking on the icon will bring up the site with details such as hours of operation and public outreach efforts.

This information is not limited to the confines of the city of Sarasota. The entire county is part of this database. Once operational, the site could provide more information about a neighborhood than a lifelong resident might know. For example: How many women are registered to vote? What’s the income distribution? How many kids are there? Does it freeze in winter?

However splendid this seems, there are hurdles. “What needs to happen so neighborhood-relevant data is contributed?” asked Pinto. “And who will serve as the primary coordinator of this data and the online platform after September?”

Those questions are central to one of the two big decisions facing SCOPE. Should it keep this website alive? The second question is, Who will replace long-time Director Tim Dutton?